Lib Dem Lords vs the Home Office #2: Sally Hamwee

Part of the Christmas story involves the baby Jesus and his parents fleeing for his life after Herod ordered the slaughter of the innocents. David Cameron, with all his talk on Christian values the other day, might like to reflect on that. If he did, he’s be withdrawing his appalling Immigration Bill. We won’t be holding our breath for that to happen. Liberal Democrat peers lined up to condemn it the other day and, over the Christmas period, we’re publishing all their speeches. Sally Hamwee had some strong words, implying that it was closer to Trump than Trudeau. It’s a long speech, but worth reading.

My Lords, from these Benches we find little that is positive in the Bill. We fear that it will increase discrimination, exploitation, destitution and homelessness. It will risk children’s welfare, turn citizens into enforcers through outsourcing and reduce the UK’s reputation in employment and other sectors—all of this, and more, without making any progress on a time limit for immigration detention, on family reunion, on integration and on community cohesion. This is the Bill we would have had in the last Parliament had it not been for the moderating effect of coalition government.

I thank the Minister for the pack from the Home Office that deals with some of these anxieties with what it calls “myth-busters”. I am afraid that the perspective of these Benches is different and I pray in aid two policy areas. The first is family reunion. When the Government are asked about relaxing the very restrictive rules, we are reminded that family visas can be issued outside the Immigration Rules on the basis of exceptional, compelling and compassionate circumstances—which is good to know, but how many have been issued? In 2011, the total was 77. In 2012, it was down to 30. In 2013, it was down again to 18, and in 2014 the total was just 12. My first thought was how counterintuitive this was, given what is going on in the world. My second thought was: in view of the experiences of people caught up in, or driven out of, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan and other countries, the situation is not exceptional.

My second example is the UN’s review of overseas domestic workers and their visas. The aims of the review included bringing their lives out of the relative shadows into an open and legal framework where they can receive the proper protection of the law. The review supports points made forcefully by a number of noble Lords during the passage of the Modern Slavery Bill. These were resisted by—or perhaps did not find traction with—the Government at that point until the very last knockings of the Bill, when its very passage was threatened. The Minister will understand that this will encourage us to stick to our guns when we are convinced that this Bill should be amended. He will also be aware that, given the current debate on how secondary legislation is dealt with, we will want at least very clear assurances about the detail of the regulations provided for in the Bill.

I hope that the Minister can tell us today—not just this House but those outside it—whether the Government plan to implement Mr Ewins’s recommendations. If they do not plan to implement all of them, which of them do they plan to implement, and when?

Second Reading is a time when one can attempt to give only a flavour of one’s approach. So to the organisations and individuals who have sent so much thoughtful and powerful material—I measured it this morning; it was almost 5 centimetres deep—I say, “Thank you, and if you are not mentioned directly, none of it will be wasted”.

I will start with some of what is not in the Bill: family union and reunion. Last week I asked whether the Government would allow people of Iraqi or Syrian origin, for instance, who are settled here, to sponsor family members. The rules are very restrictive and the processes complex. They do not even allow for a child asylum seeker who has arrived here alone to bring over his closest family. If I had a 19 year-old daughter who had to be left behind in a camp in the Middle East, that would be exceptionally tough. If I had a 24 year-old son married to a Costa Rican, starting his career and not earning much, I would be very confused why his own country would not welcome his wife. As myself, with neither of those children, I want my country to work on safe routes for refugees. The Bill’s maritime enforcement powers beg the question of what is to be done to help the passengers—or victims—once a ship without nationality is stopped.

I was a member of the all-party group inquiry into immigration and detention, as were a number of other speakers today. I was struck then by the paradox at the heart of unlimited detention: the lack, one might even say deprivation, of hope—might detention last for ever?—coupled with uncertainty that tomorrow one might, without warning, be deported. We will certainly look at the time limit. Sweden is one country where returns of unsuccessful asylum seekers is achieved more humanely and with a higher rate of voluntary returns. The returns process will be another point of focus.

I appreciate that the Bill deals with immigration bail. Seeking asylum is not equivalent to the commission of an offence with a trial pending, as the term “bail” suggests. Though we have tried before, we will try again on the right for asylum seekers to work within a reasonable period of their arrival and in occupations not regarded by the Government as in shortage. For us, it is a matter of integration and not badging asylum seekers as “other”.

Many who have the right to work and come from other parts of the EU do not understand that they have rights and are vulnerable to exploitation. This is the experience of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the future of which seems unclear in the light of this Bill and the recent consultation. Another question to the Government is what their plans are with regard to amendments in this area, what those amendments are and when they will be made.

I am not entirely comfortable with Part 1 of the Bill. Inevitably, there will be tensions because there are different priorities between the departments involved. At the moment, we have three entities funded separately: HMRC, enforcing—though some say it does not—the national minimum wage; the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, a group of civil servants within BIS; and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, a non-departmental public body with a board. What is that board for if not to create a strategy, a function, which is to go to the new director of labour market enforcement? Even before that question is answered, there is the one of who—the Home Office or BIS—will appoint the director and to whom is the strategy submitted. There is a great deal to explore around governance powers, the sectors, resources, avoiding confusion between inspection and enforcement, and, in the case of the new director, his or her very purpose. There is even the name of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority: the consultation refers to a possible change of name but does not pursue that. That is not a frivolous point as the GLA is a very strong brand.

I had thought that we might have a year without a criminal justice Bill, but of course we have the immigration-related offences. Those may be what the Government call a logical extension to the preceding legislation but I would be happier to see an end to that legislation instead. It is objectionable that employers and landlords are enlisted in the cause of enforcement and subject to difficult requirements with a criminal sanction. Landlords may not set out to discriminate—most will not—but I would not fancy your chances of easily finding accommodation if your name is “Afshar”, “Ahmed”, “Janke” or “Hamwee”. It is not as if everyone can produce a single easily understood document to prove status. Some 17.5% of the UK population do not have a passport, and I suggest that there is likely to be a higher proportion of such people among those who are seeking rented accommodation. The homelessness that may ensue is so often a trigger for exploitation. Also, eviction on the say-so of the Home Office without court involvement goes against all our instincts. In the employment context, the new illegal working offence is something else that we believe will add to the vulnerability to exploitation. Elsewhere in the employment forest, will the skills charge add to the UK’s reputation internationally?

I am sure that the House will live up to its reputation for scrutiny of the enforcement powers of the state and rights of appeal. Immigration officers already have considerable powers, which will now relate to crimes as well as to civil penalties and removal from the country. Those powers will be extended fromimmigration officers trained as criminal investigators to all—but with what recourse? In the case of the police, as a comparison, there is the IPCC.

One of the “myths busted” in the Government’s information pack is that asylum support appeals are to be scrapped though 60% are currently allowed. Leaving aside for now challenging that assertion, I would not say that the figure given in the pack of 37% of appeals being dismissed is anything to boast about, nor is extending the cohort of migrants who must appeal from overseas. Where is the equality of arms so fundamental to our justice system—that is, where there is any right of appeal at all?

The Government’s human rights memorandum acknowledges that Article 6, the right to a fair trial, is engaged regarding the refusal of new Section 95A support, but say that this is, again,

“susceptible to judicial review and emergency injunctive challenge where appropriate”.

How realistic is this, even if there were no residence test? In assessing the Bill’s compatibility with various convention rights, I am sure that proportionality will be to the fore. New Section 95A says that support for asylum seekers whose application has failed can be by way of vouchers. What a pity not to have got rid of this bureaucratic and inflexible arrangement. That might be a minor point, though, compared with other aspects of this section. We are told that the regulations will provide “very narrowly drawn” criteria for facing,

“a genuine obstacle to leaving the UK”,

and that the grace period will be short. We will not be able to amend the regulations, so it is inevitable that we will seek to challenge the Government’s plans through primary legislation.

If we do not spend time today on the horrors and risks of destitution, that is not because we ignore them. We are aware of the government amendments to plug gaps in the provision, but the Minister will be aware of views that there is a real risk that destitute families will fall through the gaps. It is not only those who fail in their application who find themselves in such difficulty. The Red Cross reports on what is called the “move-on” following the grant of refugee status, and makes practical recommendations to avoid breaks in support, which I hope we can use the Bill to look at.

The House has a veritable army prepared to fight for children’s well-being. Children’s best interests, whether among their family or if they are unaccompanied, should run through the Bill. I do not dismiss the pressures on local authorities; I have been there. As the LGA says, no council should be made to choose between supporting unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and providing vital services for their local community. The Minister dealt with the position of local authorities, but I noticed that he did not answer his own question about the transfer of burden to the third sector. There are still resource issues to be sorted out, together with the Home Office—should it not be the DCLG, if anyone?—exercising powers of direction on local authorities.

Issues of support are the subject of most of the representations which I and, no doubt, others have received from individual members of the public, although I do not think any of them have described as disingenuous applying the Home Office term “simplify” to the basis of assessment and support of people with immigration status who are destitute.

What should our immigration policy say about our Government? Should it say it say they are responsible and humane, show leadership and are closer to Trudeau than Trump? Will pulling up the drawbridge make us a better nation? The movements of people that we are seeing now will be as nothing if, or when, climate change drives even bigger movements. What will we do then?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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One Comment

  • suzanne fletcher 29th Dec '15 - 6:52pm

    Much as I disagree with the principle of an unelected House of Lords, I am proud that the Lib Dems have such highly principled and articulate Peers to stand up for those who have no voice, who cannot be heard, and are the most vulnerable. Thank you to Sally Hamwee, and the other Peers who have stand.
    I only hope that the Government will have the decency to listen and agree to the necessary amendments.

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